An eerie fog settles over the rolling farmlands of Iowa as men, women, and children file into the theater to see the show. It is the third in the series, the completion of a trilogy that began with much fanfare. The protagonist has perfectly coiffed hair and the cold, calculating relentlessness of a cyborg. His eyes bore into your skull, decipher your views, and tell you exactly what you want to hear. But this is no Terminator 3. It is Mitt Romney’s third run for president. In a scene from America’s similarly dystopian future—in 2016 rather than 2029—he has arrived in the Hawkeye State in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses to take the title role in another sequel nobody wanted.
The former Massachusetts governor has declared he will run again. Basically. He’s “considering it,” the new parlance of choice for those clearly seeking the big chair. Some have noted this is probably the least severe form of equivocation you could hope for from Romney. He offered his presidential tease at a fundraiser filled with the kind of establishment conservative mega-donors who have backed his two previous tilts at the White House, who strung their flags up the mast of U.S.S. Romney as it weathered the rough surf of 2008 and the Tea Party tsunamis that followed. For a long time now, ever since John McCain’s brief run as the GOP’s Mr. Reasonable ended in defeat to Barack Obama, Romney has been the port in the storm. But a third movie?
Maybe the crowds will come and buy their tickets simply because they always have, because they know what they’re getting. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. Terminator 3 still made $433 million at the box office. Romney would only need three times that to finance a presidential campaign.
Romney’s career as a presidential candidate started—the first part in his trilogy—so promisingly. He was a moderate Republican governor from Massachusetts. He was a fiscal conservative who slashed budgets at the state level. He laid off public sector employees and dramatically decreased state funding to local towns and communities, attempting to overcome a budget shortfall of about $500 million without raising taxes. Unemployment fell. He passed a health care reform law, with an individual mandate as a centerpiece, that ended up covering 98.1 percent of residents. He was, briefly, for civil unions. He was for the federal assault weapons ban. He was pro-choice.
As his presidential campaign ramped up, though, things began to change. He looked a man, sure, but the influence of the machine underneath became more and more pronounced. The gears started turning, the lasers x-raying nearby brains. He seemed in a constant state of flux, in form and in political views. He was inhumanly rigid on the debate stage and at the podium but also seemed to be crafted from some sort of overly malleable plastic. Perhaps he was continually being melted down and remolded but never allowed to dry. As David Javerbaum put it with such lithe wit in 2012, Romney was quantum mechanics at work, the first “quantum politician.”
He was moderate and conservative. He was pro-choice and then pro-life. He was for a raise in the minimum wage, but then not right now. In January 2009, he supported the $750 billion economic stimulus package proposed by incoming President Obama. In 2012, running to unseat the president, he said it was “the biggest, most careless one-time expenditure by the federal government in history.” And of course, the individual health insurance mandate was good until it was bad. There is a Wikipedia page titled “Political positions of Mitt Romney.” God bless whoever compiled that.
Really, though, Romney’s quantum politics are not the issue. He’s changed positions a bunch, sure, but nobody really seems to care. The real problem is that, other than people who share his last name, nobody has ever been excited about a Mitt Romney presidency.
Obviously Democrats aren’t, although Gov. Mitt Romney must once have had some appeal. He was elected in Massachusetts, and he really was a moderate before he swung one leg over the fence that kept the massing Tea Party hordes away from the real levers of power. He went from fiscal conservative and social moderate—also known as being a college sophomore—to the anti-Obama Etch-a-Sketch, erasing any liberal votes he might have gotten in the process.
Democrats aren’t the real problem here, though. The real problem is that Republicans don’t like Romney. Even the traditionalist wing, the “business” caucus, can’t get jazzed about the guy. How else do you explain the parade of clowns that took turns leading the race for the Republican nomination in 2012? Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) surged to victory in the Iowa straw poll that August. Then Texas Gov. Rick Perry had a turn before a debate performance for the ages. Then came Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.
Realistically, none of these people were receiving votes to become the presidential nominee. Each of those votes were cast for a hypothetical candidate whom we might call “Not Romney.” Not Romney led the polls up until Republicans from sea to shining sea were forced to admit that, yes, Mitt Romney was the best they could hope for. There would be no heroic rescue. Jeb Bush would not be riding into the Republican National Convention on horseback. The ghost of Ronald Reagan was unavailable.
This time, Bush has thrown his hat in—oops, he’s considering it, sorry—and has already staked his claim to a significant portion of establishment Republican donor money. That’s probably why Romney is telling his donors to “tell [their] friends.” If he could sweat, he’d be sweating. In this third volume of the tale of Mitt Romney for President, the story is different. Romney will not be the only reasonably sane person on the debate stage. Chris Christie could well join him and Bush there. Scott Walker could jump into the ring. All of these people rival the Romney appeal to moderates, but are also, as far as anyone can tell, fully human entities with an ounce of charisma.
That’s a welcome change, but the storyline remains unbearably repetitive. There has been a Clinton, Bush, or Romney on the ballot in every presidential election since 1988, and there is a near unassailable certainty that will continue. Romney will be back again in 2016 for another soporific chapter in his Sisyphean presidential struggle, but James Cameron won’t be directing. They couldn’t even get Michael Bay.